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£1.5m spent on unapproved plans for Harrogate Convention Centre redevelopment

More than £1.5m of taxpayers’ money has already been spent on plans for a major redevelopment of Harrogate Convention Centre before the project has been approved.

More than £1.5m of taxpayers’ money has already been spent on plans for a major redevelopment of Harrogate Convention Centre before the project has been approved. In what is set to be one of its biggest decisions in recent history, Harrogate Borough Council will next summer vote on the proposed project which is currently at the design stage and could cost £47m over three phases. Figures obtained by the Local Democracy Reporting Service show £1.1m has so far been spent on contracts for design and feasibility works, while £275,000 has been spent on a first phase business case and £179,050 on an outline business case. Councillor Graham Swift, deputy leader and cabinet member for economic growth at the council, said these works have been a key part of the planning process and that they will help the authority weigh up the benefits and risks before making a final decision. He said:

“By appointing specialists – such as Cushman and Wakefield, Arcadis and KPMG – we will have a comprehensive understanding of the feasibility of the project. “It is crucial that we redevelop the ageing site as well as introduce much more flexible spaces that will allow us to attract a broader customer base and substantially strengthen this economic impact. “These changes are essential to stay relevant for the changing conference trade and optimise space for the future. “The delivery of this project will also be key to the district’s Covid-19 economic recovery plan. “Therefore, it is essential we get it right.”
Now over 40 years old, the council says the centre is in “critical need” of an upgrade and that there is “very real risk” it will not survive without investment. It was estimated before the pandemic that the venue attracted more than 150,000 visitors a year with an annual economic impact of £35m. However, there are now questions over how quickly the events industry can bounce back. Even before Covid, Harrogate’s position in the industry was under threat as major conferences began taking their business to bigger and newer arenas. This growing competition has led to warnings from centre director Paula Lorimer who last week said the venue will miss out on “large and lucrative” events unless the redevelopment plans are accelerated. The project was first revealed in 2020 when the council’s opposition Liberal Democrat group signalled its support for the plans, although it criticised the Conservative-run authority for what it described as a lack of investment in the past. The Liberal Democrats have also accused the council over failures in planning for the initial convention centre build over 40 years ago, adding that these “mistakes” must now be avoided by ensuring the redevelopment plans are well prepared and fully costed. The party said in a statement:
“Any potential project of this magnitude needs to be fully costed and investigated before any decision is made to go ahead. “This was a major failing the council made when it proceeded with the conference centre development in the 1970’s. “The project increased in price from just over £8m to over £34m by the time it was ready to open in 1982 and took twice as long as originally planned. “The future of the conference and exhibition business is probably going to be one of the most important economic decisions to be made for our area for years to come. “We must get it right and learn from past mistakes.”
By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter Read more local stories from Your Harrogate here.

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